State leaders and municipal CEOs from across the state convened on Zoom to discuss continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured are (clockwise from the top left) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health; Secretary of Education James Peyser; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services.

Well into the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic and with the holidays around the corner, state and local leaders today focused on the cause of coronavirus spread – generally informal, unsupervised gatherings where public health recommendations are not observed – and the ongoing efforts to control the outbreak.

During the 25th regular conference call convened by the MMA during the pandemic, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the administration is focused on a “targeted intervention” strategy rather than a rollback to an earlier stage of the four-phase reopening plan or stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns.

With case numbers at eight times the level they were around Labor Day, and hospitalization rates around 4.5 times as high, she outlined a state response focused on limiting gatherings, requiring face coverings in public, and closing businesses late at night and urging residents to stay home after 10 p.m., all of which took effect on Nov. 6.

As the governor has done, Polito pointed out that Massachusetts is “in a very different place than we were” when COVID first appeared here in March, with more knowledge and data about COVID and how it spreads, a stockpile of personal protective equipment that would last through the end of 2021, established safety protocols at health care facilities, an educated public, and a nation-leading testing and contact tracing system.

The lieutenant governor explained recent changes to the COVID data metrics the state uses to assign a risk level to each community, which took effect with the Department of Public Health’s Weekly COVID-19 Public Health Report issued one week ago. Reflecting input from local officials, she said, the new metrics take into account the local test positivity rate as well as average daily cases per 100,000 people, and make more of an allowance for smaller communities, which, under the former system, could be susceptible to rapid fluctuations due to an isolated outbreak.

Regarding next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, Polito urged local leaders to become familiar with the state’s DPH guidance, which urges only small gatherings, adherence to the state’s travel orders, observance of public health recommendations regarding face coverings, hand washing and distancing, and avoidance of physical contact and food and beverage-sharing.

“We, frankly, need your help in just making sure that those messages get out there,” she said.

In response to questions about the availability of testing, and whether it’s adequate to meet growing demand, Polito said the DPH continues to operate 18 Stop the Spread free testing sites throughout the state and a free regional express testing site at Suffolk Downs in Revere, open to all Massachusetts residents. She added that CVS and Walgreens stores offer COVID testing, and that communities may use federal CARES Act funds to set up their own regional testing programs.

The Stop the Spread site contracts are due to expire on Dec. 31, but Assistant DPH Commissioner Jana Ferguson said the COVID Command Center is currently reviewing the availability and demand for testing and may extend the contracts. A decision is expected in mid-December, she said.

Ferguson also gave an overview of the “high-level” plan for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, which will use a phased approach prioritizing frontline health care workers and particularly vulnerable populations. The general public will have access in Phase 3, she said, adding that a lot more information will be announced in the coming months. She said financial support to help communities with their role in the vaccine rollout is part of the planning effort.

In the area of economic recovery, Polito mentioned a MassWorks grant announcement from earlier today of 36 awards totalling $68 million. The infrastructure grant program, administered by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, is intended to promote development, economic activity, job creation and housing.

On the topic of outdoor dining, Polito said COVID-19 Order No. 50, signed in September, allows municipalities to approve extensions beyond Nov. 30 to a later date or until 60 days after the state of emergency ends, whichever is sooner.

She also mentioned a new phase in the Shared Streets and Spaces program tailored for the winter months, with an initial $10 million investment in municipal grants. Shared Winter Streets and Spaces focuses on facilitating outdoor activities and winter programming.

Local officials asked about whether the administration supports making permanent certain pandemic-related accommodations governing municipal operations, such as the authority to hold meetings and hearings remotely and the lifting of the cap on hours that can be worked by retirees (previously set at 960). She said the administration is open to discussing the former, and is supportive of the latter, pending legislative action.

K-12 and higher education
Education Secretary James Peyser addressed updated travel guidance for college and university students in advance of the approaching holiday season and the initial distribution round of more than 2 million Abbott BinaxNOW rapid diagnostic tests from the federal government that have been prioritized for use in K-12 schools that are providing in-person instruction.

Phase 1 of the Binax initiative will reach 134 public school districts, charter schools and special education schools across Massachusetts. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued guidance on Nov. 16, and the first tests are expected to be released around Dec. 1.

The antigen tests, which typically produce results in 15 minutes, will be administered to students or staff who develop any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 while they are at school. (Students and staff who are experiencing any symptoms before the school day begins should not be entering the school.) The intent is to quickly identify potential COVID-positive cases and get them into isolation.

There are training and other requirements school districts need to meet to be able to administer the tests, but Peyser said they are not “onerous,” and parental consent is needed in order to test minors.

“There’s still little evidence that suggests that students and staff are contracting COVID in schools when the core health and safety protocols are followed,” Peyser said, adding that the testing is “good to have, but it’s really a supplementary complement to all those other things, which are really critical to keeping students and staff safe.”

Asked about the recent shift by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention away from recommending in-person learning, Peyser said the administration continues to evaluate the growing – and encouraging – health evidence, but also weighs the educational, social and emotional and mental health needs of K-12 students, which suggests that it’s important to have students “in school as much as possible.” He said the administration is concerned about kids “losing precious learning time,” becoming isolated, and missing out on routines and social and emotional development.

“It’s just a huge loss that we feel strongly, if we don’t take steps to address it urgently, it’s just going to be very difficult for us to compensate for after the fact,” he said. “We’re already digging a hole for ourselves. The pandemic is doing the digging primarily, but we need to do everything we can to swim against this tide in order to mitigate those losses and the damage that’s being done.”

It’s also a concern, he added, that the impacts of the absence of in-person learning are being felt unequally across certain racial, ethnic and income groups. Polito added that the national guidance is not necessarily relevant to Massachusetts, which has more aggressive testing, tracing and health protocols than most other states.

With the Thanksgiving break coming up next week, and recognizing the risks involved in interstate travel, Gov. Charlie Baker yesterday joined the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in urging residential colleges and universities to provide testing for all students – whether they live on campus or off – who plan to travel home.

Students who plan to travel should receive a negative COVID-19 test administered by the college within 72 hours of their departure. Students who test positive should be encouraged to isolate on campus.

The seven governors also “strongly recommend” that colleges and universities finish their fall semesters by expanding remote instruction for the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break rather than require students to travel back to campus and then back home again in December. Colleges and universities that do reopen for in-person instruction during this period should provide COVID-19 testing for returning students and have them comply with relevant isolation and quarantine protocols.

A requirement that Massachusetts colleges and universities test all students on a weekly basis takes effect in January, Peyser said, though many higher education institutions are already doing so.

Also participating in the call were Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services.

Audio of Nov. 19 call with administration (37M MP3)

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